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CRICOS No.00213J
Identifying the Symptoms
of Destructive Polarisation
Axel Bruns with the support of:
Australian Laureate Fellow Laura Vodden
Digital Media Research Centre Tariq Choucair
Queensland University of Technology Samantha Vilkins
Brisbane, Australia Katharina Esau
a.bruns@qut.edu.au
@snurb_dot_info | @snurb@aoir.social | @snurb.bsky.social
CRICOS No.00213J
CRICOS No.00213J
Image: Midjourney
Polarisation
CRICOS No.00213J
Our Project
• Australian Laureate Fellowship (2022-27)
• Determining the Drivers and Dynamics of Partisanship and Polarisation in Online Public
Debate
• Digital Media Research Centre, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia
• 4 postdocs, 4 + 4* PhD students, 1 data scientist
• Cross-national comparisons (intended: AU, US, UK, DE, DK, CH, probably + BR, PE, CA)
• Longitudinal analysis over the course of the project
* Starting in 2024 – interested? Get in touch! (a.bruns@qut.edu.au)
CRICOS No.00213J
Image: Midjourney
Forms of Polarisation
CRICOS No.00213J
(https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2022/08/09/as-partisan-hostility-grows-signs-of-
frustration-with-the-two-party-system/pp_2022-08-09_partisan-hostility_01-08/)
(https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2023/09/19/the-republican-and-
democratic-parties/pp_2023-09-19_views-of-politics_04-02/)
CRICOS No.00213J
Forms of Polarisation
• Polarisation at what levels?
• Micro: between individuals
• Meso: between groups
• Macro: across society
• Mass: involving everyone
• Elite: amongst formal political actors (however defined)
• See: Esau et al. (2023) — https://eprints.qut.edu.au/238775/
• (and chapter forthcoming in the Routledge Handbook of Political Campaigning)
CRICOS No.00213J
Forms of Polarisation
• Polarisation on what attributes?
• Issue-based: disagreements over specific policy settings
• Ideological: fundamental differences based on political belief systems
• Affective: political beliefs turned into deeply felt in-group / out-group identity
• Perceived: view of society, as based on personal views and media reporting
• Interpretive: reading of issues, events, and media coverage based on personal views
• Interactional: manifested in choices to interact with or ignore other individuals/groups
• (and more…)
CRICOS No.00213J
Image: Midjourney
A Problem? (When?)
CRICOS No.00213J
Agonism? Polarisation? Dysfunction?
• How bad is it, exactly?
• All politics is polarised (just not to the point of dysfunction)
• Much (most?) politics is multipolar, not just left/right
• When does mild antagonism turn into destructive polarisation?
• We suggest five symptoms (Esau et al., 2023):
a) breakdown of communication;
b) discrediting and dismissing of information;
c) erasure of complexities;
d) exacerbated attention and space for extreme voices;
e) exclusion through emotions.
Image: Midjourney
CRICOS No.00213J
Case Study
(https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-10-08/voice-polls-show-support-lower-than-republic-vote/102942468)
CRICOS No.00213J
• Indigenous rights and recognition:
• Complex topic since European arrival in 1788
• Indigenous Australians remain severely
disadvantaged
• Persistent lack of formal consultation
• Voice to Parliament:
• Endorsed in 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart
• Commitment to referendum on a Voice in Anthony
Albanese’s 21 May 2022 election victory speech
• Referendum design revealed in March 2023
• Constitutional referendum held on 14 Oct. 2023
Proposed Constitutional Amendment:
Chapter IX Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Peoples
129 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice
In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the
First Peoples of Australia:
1. There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander Voice;
2. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make
representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of
the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander peoples;
3. The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to
make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions,
powers and procedures.
Case Study: Voice to Parliament Referendum
CRICOS No.00213J
Referendum Vote
• Voting modus:
• Compulsory for all registered voters
• Actual turnout: 89.95%
• Requirements for success:
• Majority of voters overall
• Majority of voters in majority of states
(4 of 6)
• Results:
• Overall: 40% Yes, 60% No
• 0 of 6 states
• Yes win only in Australian Capital
Territory
By Teratix - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=131601888
(https://theconversation.com/new-polling-shows-no-voters-more-likely-to-see-australia-as-already-divided-214713)
CRICOS No.00213J
Datasets:
Facebook: ~89k posts from ~9400 public pages/groups (via CrowdTangle)
Twitter: ~52k tweets from ~18k accounts (via NodeXL scraper; mostly excluding retweets)
(+ Instagram, YouTube, … – more work in progress)
The Voice Debate in
Mainstream and Social Media
ABC News
Yes 23
The Project
Rove McManus
Anthony
Albanese
Linda Burney The Australian
Sky News
Australia
Pauline
Hanson
Nyunggai
Warren
Mundine
Uluru
Statement
Crikey
Jacinta
Nampijinpa
Price
Twitter @Mentions Network
Black/green/grey/red: Twitter accounts
Yes/No stance: by exclusive use of #VoteYes / #VoteNo
Sky News Australia
Senator Jacinta Price –
Don’t Divide Us Vote No
The Voice 2023 –
Yes or No
Pauline Hanson’s
Please Explain
The Uluru Statement
from the Heart
Yes 23
ABC News
Pensioners, Veterans and Seniors
Political Discussion Group
We Loathe Dutton
& Murdoch
Facebook On-Sharing Network
Black/green/grey/red: public Facebook pages/groups
Yes/No stance: LLM-based coding of post content
CRICOS No.00213J
CRICOS No.00213J
Conservative and Far-Right Politicians
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Centrist and Progressive Politicians
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• Asymmetrical contest:
• Strong role of party-political alignment
• Issue polarisation subsumed into ideological (and affective) polarisation
• Expressed in social media contexts as interactive polarisation
• No campaign substantially more centralised
• Yes campaign splintered and relying on grassroots activism without strong leadership
Overall Impressions So Far
CRICOS No.00213J
Conservative and Far-Right Media
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Centrist and Progressive Media
CRICOS No.00213J
Overall Impressions So Far
• Asymmetrical contest:
• Strong role of party-political alignment
• Issue polarisation subsumed into ideological (and affective) polarisation
• Expressed in social media contexts as interactive polarisation
• No campaign substantially more centralised
• Yes campaign splintered and relying on grassroots activism without strong leadership
• Very clear position of leadership for Sky News Australia – no Yes campaign counterpart
• Right and far-right media very clearly supporting No agenda and talking-points
• Clear attempts to deepen affective polarisation
• Centre and centre-left media more focussed on fact-checking than campaigning
CRICOS No.00213J
Overall Impressions from Our Analysis
• Asymmetrical contest:
• Strong role of party-political alignment
• Issue polarisation subsumed into ideological (and affective) polarisation
• Expressed in social media contexts as interactive polarisation
• No campaign substantially more centralised
• Yes campaign splintered and relying on grassroots activism without strong leadership
• Very clear position of leadership for Sky News Australia – no Yes campaign counterpart
• Right and far-right media very clearly supporting No agenda and talking-points
• Clear attempts to deepen affective polarisation
• Centre and centre-left media more focussed on fact-checking than campaigning
• Substantially more engagement with No-leaning content
• Obvious interpretive polarisation, particularly on Uluru Statement and Voice proposal itself
• Significant role for YouTube content, especially on Facebook
• Opinion poll results reveal divergent patterns of perceived polarisation on either side
CRICOS No.00213J
Image: Midjourney
Destructive Polarisation
CRICOS No.00213J
Example: @mention network on Twitter*
Some separation into Yes/No camps, with continued
exchanges between the two sides – but often lack of
meaningful engagement between them.
How extreme is this, by comparison with other cases?
Symptoms of Dysfunction:
Breakdown of
Communication
* Data obtained through NodeXL Twitter scraper, with limited completeness.
Red: exclusively using #VoteNo; green: exclusively using #VoteYes.
CRICOS No.00213J
Example: Liberal Party ‘No’ Campaign on Instagram
Simple language, appeals to ignorance.
How might we operationalise this at scale? Sentence
structure, semiotic analysis?
Symptoms of Dysfunction:
Erasure of Complexities
(https://www.instagram.com/p/CyMy7hFI1Kw/)
CRICOS No.00213J
Example: Sky News Australia Reporting
Many of the most widely shared videos from influential
conservative news source Sky News Australia made
explicitly conspiracist claims.
Distinct language choices and othering of opponents.
Symptoms of Dysfunction:
Discrediting and Dismissal
of Information
(https://www.skynews.com.au/opinion/peta-credlin/transfer-of-power-voice-has-very-little-to-do-with-supporting-indigenous-australians/video/597252c79e59d25cf3bfe0c423768dc1,
https://www.skynews.com.au/australia-news/sky-news-host-peta-credlin-exposes-labors-lie-on-the-uluru-statement-from-the-heart-under-freedom-of-information-act/news-story/f1539032a44c6658c2feb352b2ddea45,
https://www.skynews.com.au/opinion/andrew-bolt/youve-been-misled-real-agenda-of-the-voice-exposed-in-a-brawl/video/d2255bf53cb4c0223e990cabd1461f14)
CRICOS No.00213J
Example: YouTube Videos Shared on Facebook
Explicitly conspiracist (and antisemitic) videos amongst the
YouTube video content shared most frequently in public
Facebook groups and pages.
Analysis of (audience and media) attention distribution.
Symptoms of Dysfunction:
Disproportionate Attention
to Extreme Voices
CRICOS No.00213J
Example: No Campaign’s Use of Fear and Doubt
“The campaign to sink the Voice has instructed volunteers
to use fear and doubt rather than facts to trump arguments
used by the Yes camp.” (Sydney Morning Herald)
Detection of affective and emotional language choices.
Symptoms of Dysfunction:
Exclusion through
Emotions
(https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/no-campaign-s-fear-doubt-strategy-revealed-20230910-p5e3fu.html)
CRICOS No.00213J
Further Outlook
Image: Midjourney
CRICOS No.00213J
Research Perspectives
• Symptoms of dysfunction:
• Do these five cover the major pathologies, or are there further symptoms?
• Are there more systematic approaches to diagnosing these symptoms?
• At what point are the symptoms severe enough to represent dysfunction?
• (Need to consider national, cultural, platform contexts here.)
• Methodological approaches:
• How might we scale up the evaluation of these symptoms beyond small-scale studies?
• What is the role for Natural Language Processing and AI-enhanced analysis here?
CRICOS No.00213J
Research Perspectives
• Forms of polarisation:
• More work needed on digital research methods for different, entangled polarisation forms
• How do the symptoms align with polarisation types? E.g.:
• Exclusion through emotions  affective polarisation
• Breakdown of communication  interactional polarisation
• Is there a common progression from minor to major forms of polarisation, or symptoms?
• Can these insights be used to formulate depolarisation strategies?
• Beyond Twitter and Facebook:
• Strong need for more cross-platform / platform-agnostic research approaches
CRICOS No.00213J
Thank you!
CRICOS No.00213J
This research is supported by the Australian Research Council through the Australian Laureate
Fellowship project Determining the Dynamics of Partisanship and Polarisation in Online Public
Debate.
Acknowledgments

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Identifying the Symptoms of Destructive Polarisation

  • 1. CRICOS No.00213J Identifying the Symptoms of Destructive Polarisation Axel Bruns with the support of: Australian Laureate Fellow Laura Vodden Digital Media Research Centre Tariq Choucair Queensland University of Technology Samantha Vilkins Brisbane, Australia Katharina Esau a.bruns@qut.edu.au @snurb_dot_info | @snurb@aoir.social | @snurb.bsky.social
  • 4. CRICOS No.00213J Our Project • Australian Laureate Fellowship (2022-27) • Determining the Drivers and Dynamics of Partisanship and Polarisation in Online Public Debate • Digital Media Research Centre, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia • 4 postdocs, 4 + 4* PhD students, 1 data scientist • Cross-national comparisons (intended: AU, US, UK, DE, DK, CH, probably + BR, PE, CA) • Longitudinal analysis over the course of the project * Starting in 2024 – interested? Get in touch! (a.bruns@qut.edu.au)
  • 7. CRICOS No.00213J Forms of Polarisation • Polarisation at what levels? • Micro: between individuals • Meso: between groups • Macro: across society • Mass: involving everyone • Elite: amongst formal political actors (however defined) • See: Esau et al. (2023) — https://eprints.qut.edu.au/238775/ • (and chapter forthcoming in the Routledge Handbook of Political Campaigning)
  • 8. CRICOS No.00213J Forms of Polarisation • Polarisation on what attributes? • Issue-based: disagreements over specific policy settings • Ideological: fundamental differences based on political belief systems • Affective: political beliefs turned into deeply felt in-group / out-group identity • Perceived: view of society, as based on personal views and media reporting • Interpretive: reading of issues, events, and media coverage based on personal views • Interactional: manifested in choices to interact with or ignore other individuals/groups • (and more…)
  • 10. CRICOS No.00213J Agonism? Polarisation? Dysfunction? • How bad is it, exactly? • All politics is polarised (just not to the point of dysfunction) • Much (most?) politics is multipolar, not just left/right • When does mild antagonism turn into destructive polarisation? • We suggest five symptoms (Esau et al., 2023): a) breakdown of communication; b) discrediting and dismissing of information; c) erasure of complexities; d) exacerbated attention and space for extreme voices; e) exclusion through emotions. Image: Midjourney
  • 12. CRICOS No.00213J • Indigenous rights and recognition: • Complex topic since European arrival in 1788 • Indigenous Australians remain severely disadvantaged • Persistent lack of formal consultation • Voice to Parliament: • Endorsed in 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart • Commitment to referendum on a Voice in Anthony Albanese’s 21 May 2022 election victory speech • Referendum design revealed in March 2023 • Constitutional referendum held on 14 Oct. 2023 Proposed Constitutional Amendment: Chapter IX Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples 129 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia: 1. There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice; 2. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; 3. The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures. Case Study: Voice to Parliament Referendum
  • 13.
  • 14. CRICOS No.00213J Referendum Vote • Voting modus: • Compulsory for all registered voters • Actual turnout: 89.95% • Requirements for success: • Majority of voters overall • Majority of voters in majority of states (4 of 6) • Results: • Overall: 40% Yes, 60% No • 0 of 6 states • Yes win only in Australian Capital Territory By Teratix - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=131601888
  • 16. CRICOS No.00213J Datasets: Facebook: ~89k posts from ~9400 public pages/groups (via CrowdTangle) Twitter: ~52k tweets from ~18k accounts (via NodeXL scraper; mostly excluding retweets) (+ Instagram, YouTube, … – more work in progress) The Voice Debate in Mainstream and Social Media
  • 17. ABC News Yes 23 The Project Rove McManus Anthony Albanese Linda Burney The Australian Sky News Australia Pauline Hanson Nyunggai Warren Mundine Uluru Statement Crikey Jacinta Nampijinpa Price Twitter @Mentions Network Black/green/grey/red: Twitter accounts Yes/No stance: by exclusive use of #VoteYes / #VoteNo
  • 18. Sky News Australia Senator Jacinta Price – Don’t Divide Us Vote No The Voice 2023 – Yes or No Pauline Hanson’s Please Explain The Uluru Statement from the Heart Yes 23 ABC News Pensioners, Veterans and Seniors Political Discussion Group We Loathe Dutton & Murdoch Facebook On-Sharing Network Black/green/grey/red: public Facebook pages/groups Yes/No stance: LLM-based coding of post content
  • 20. CRICOS No.00213J Conservative and Far-Right Politicians
  • 21. CRICOS No.00213J Centrist and Progressive Politicians
  • 22. CRICOS No.00213J • Asymmetrical contest: • Strong role of party-political alignment • Issue polarisation subsumed into ideological (and affective) polarisation • Expressed in social media contexts as interactive polarisation • No campaign substantially more centralised • Yes campaign splintered and relying on grassroots activism without strong leadership Overall Impressions So Far
  • 24. CRICOS No.00213J Centrist and Progressive Media
  • 25. CRICOS No.00213J Overall Impressions So Far • Asymmetrical contest: • Strong role of party-political alignment • Issue polarisation subsumed into ideological (and affective) polarisation • Expressed in social media contexts as interactive polarisation • No campaign substantially more centralised • Yes campaign splintered and relying on grassroots activism without strong leadership • Very clear position of leadership for Sky News Australia – no Yes campaign counterpart • Right and far-right media very clearly supporting No agenda and talking-points • Clear attempts to deepen affective polarisation • Centre and centre-left media more focussed on fact-checking than campaigning
  • 26. CRICOS No.00213J Overall Impressions from Our Analysis • Asymmetrical contest: • Strong role of party-political alignment • Issue polarisation subsumed into ideological (and affective) polarisation • Expressed in social media contexts as interactive polarisation • No campaign substantially more centralised • Yes campaign splintered and relying on grassroots activism without strong leadership • Very clear position of leadership for Sky News Australia – no Yes campaign counterpart • Right and far-right media very clearly supporting No agenda and talking-points • Clear attempts to deepen affective polarisation • Centre and centre-left media more focussed on fact-checking than campaigning • Substantially more engagement with No-leaning content • Obvious interpretive polarisation, particularly on Uluru Statement and Voice proposal itself • Significant role for YouTube content, especially on Facebook • Opinion poll results reveal divergent patterns of perceived polarisation on either side
  • 28. CRICOS No.00213J Example: @mention network on Twitter* Some separation into Yes/No camps, with continued exchanges between the two sides – but often lack of meaningful engagement between them. How extreme is this, by comparison with other cases? Symptoms of Dysfunction: Breakdown of Communication * Data obtained through NodeXL Twitter scraper, with limited completeness. Red: exclusively using #VoteNo; green: exclusively using #VoteYes.
  • 29. CRICOS No.00213J Example: Liberal Party ‘No’ Campaign on Instagram Simple language, appeals to ignorance. How might we operationalise this at scale? Sentence structure, semiotic analysis? Symptoms of Dysfunction: Erasure of Complexities (https://www.instagram.com/p/CyMy7hFI1Kw/)
  • 30. CRICOS No.00213J Example: Sky News Australia Reporting Many of the most widely shared videos from influential conservative news source Sky News Australia made explicitly conspiracist claims. Distinct language choices and othering of opponents. Symptoms of Dysfunction: Discrediting and Dismissal of Information (https://www.skynews.com.au/opinion/peta-credlin/transfer-of-power-voice-has-very-little-to-do-with-supporting-indigenous-australians/video/597252c79e59d25cf3bfe0c423768dc1, https://www.skynews.com.au/australia-news/sky-news-host-peta-credlin-exposes-labors-lie-on-the-uluru-statement-from-the-heart-under-freedom-of-information-act/news-story/f1539032a44c6658c2feb352b2ddea45, https://www.skynews.com.au/opinion/andrew-bolt/youve-been-misled-real-agenda-of-the-voice-exposed-in-a-brawl/video/d2255bf53cb4c0223e990cabd1461f14)
  • 31. CRICOS No.00213J Example: YouTube Videos Shared on Facebook Explicitly conspiracist (and antisemitic) videos amongst the YouTube video content shared most frequently in public Facebook groups and pages. Analysis of (audience and media) attention distribution. Symptoms of Dysfunction: Disproportionate Attention to Extreme Voices
  • 32. CRICOS No.00213J Example: No Campaign’s Use of Fear and Doubt “The campaign to sink the Voice has instructed volunteers to use fear and doubt rather than facts to trump arguments used by the Yes camp.” (Sydney Morning Herald) Detection of affective and emotional language choices. Symptoms of Dysfunction: Exclusion through Emotions (https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/no-campaign-s-fear-doubt-strategy-revealed-20230910-p5e3fu.html)
  • 34. CRICOS No.00213J Research Perspectives • Symptoms of dysfunction: • Do these five cover the major pathologies, or are there further symptoms? • Are there more systematic approaches to diagnosing these symptoms? • At what point are the symptoms severe enough to represent dysfunction? • (Need to consider national, cultural, platform contexts here.) • Methodological approaches: • How might we scale up the evaluation of these symptoms beyond small-scale studies? • What is the role for Natural Language Processing and AI-enhanced analysis here?
  • 35. CRICOS No.00213J Research Perspectives • Forms of polarisation: • More work needed on digital research methods for different, entangled polarisation forms • How do the symptoms align with polarisation types? E.g.: • Exclusion through emotions  affective polarisation • Breakdown of communication  interactional polarisation • Is there a common progression from minor to major forms of polarisation, or symptoms? • Can these insights be used to formulate depolarisation strategies? • Beyond Twitter and Facebook: • Strong need for more cross-platform / platform-agnostic research approaches
  • 37. CRICOS No.00213J This research is supported by the Australian Research Council through the Australian Laureate Fellowship project Determining the Dynamics of Partisanship and Polarisation in Online Public Debate. Acknowledgments